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Deciding how much others count: slippery slope argument


To: David N.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Deciding how much others count: slippery slope argument
Date: 12th February 2009 12:58

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 2 February with your fourth essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''Once you give up the principle that others should always count equally in our moral deliberations, you are on a slippery slope which ultimately leads to the morality of 'anything goes'.' – How good is that argument?'

The standard response to slippery slope arguments (e.g. as used against abortion) is to argue that many questions in ethics and outside ethics have parameters which allow a degree of vagueness. Here is a simple example of vagueness. If you tell me to put the saucepan 'on the table', your request leaves me the freedom to put it in the centre of the table, or on one side, or hanging over the edge of the table so that the slightest push would make it fall on the floor. However, if I were to do the latter, you could justifiably complain that my response to your request was perverse, and against its intention.

This response is possible only against a background of knowledge of what tables are for, why one would want to put a saucepan on a table, etc. etc. In other words, bearing in mind this background knowledge, there are principled reasons for putting the saucepan roughly in the middle of the table (where there is no danger of accident) without requring us to get out a ruler.

As applied to the ethics of dialogue, and the claim that 'some persons count more than others' the slippery slope argument does not raise an objection to the very idea of differential counting but rather claims that in this case there are no principled reasons which would limit how little some of those affected by my actions are to count relative to others affected.

You have restated the objection, and also correctly pointed out that Kantianism and utilitarianism (to name two theories) are not potentially susceptible to this argument because in principle, on these theories every individual 'counts' for the same.

However, what we are interested in is whether the defender of the ethics of dialogue has any way to limit the slippery slope by appeal to reasonable, non-arbitrary principles.

The motivation for allowing some to count more than others is examples like the famous 'Archbishop Fenelon' thought experiment, where you have the choice of rescuing the good Bishop (whose life is an inspiration to so many thousands) or his housekeeper from a fire. However, the housekeeper happens to be your mother.

The intuition which example like this provoke is that it is acceptable to allow those whom you love or are close to you to count more than strangers. This (it is claimed) is normal, acceptable human behaviour within the boundaries of morality.

The idea of an 'ethics of dialogue' is one possible attempt to justify this intuition, by providing something like 'principled reasons' for setting limits. In the example which you cite, a country like Australia which takes actions 'in the national interest' and in order to protect its economy, and the livelihoods of its citizens, while allowing those in other countries affected by the decision to 'count for very little' is a counterexample to the ethics of dialogue.

However, the original objection was aimed at the ethics of dialogue, on the assumption that an honest attempt is made to live up to what an ethics of dialogue requires, just as an objection to Kantianism or utilitarianism assumes that we are behaving (or attempting to behave) like good Kantians or good utilitarians.

What are the Australians missing? what are they doing wrong? From the point of view of the ethics of dialogue, their action demonstrates that they are prepared to simply ignore any protest raised on behalf of those adversely affected by their decision. This goes against the ethics of dialogue. But suppose they didn't ignore it. It doesn't follow that their policy on this particular issue will be any different. However, having taken the step of showing that they are prepared to behave responsibly on the international stage, there are potentially other political decisions which may go the other way -- if the protests are loud enough.

We expect our politicians to make decisions which are in the national interest, on the assumption that the leaders of other countries will do the same. However, it is fully consistent with this expectation that we should also be prepared to limit the pursuit of national self-interest when other issues are at stake such as threats to global ecology.

Like other countries, I assume that Australia allocates a portion of its economic resources to overseas aid. Why bother to do this? If Australia (or any other country) refuses to play the perfect altruist on the international stage, why not pursue a course of pure egoism? I would argue that the ethics of dialogue has an intelligible explanation to offer, where moral theories based on the assumption of the necessity of a disinterested view do not.

All the best,